Writer’s Desk: Take Every Assignment

When Vivian Gornick wanted a job at the Village Voice in the late 1960s, she wrote an article and sent it to them. Editor Dan Wolf then called her up and asked, “Who the hell are you?” She replied, “I don’t know, you tell me.” She got anxious, sent him another article every year or so, and only then asked for a job.

Gornick told Artforum what happened next:

‘[Wolf said] You write one piece a year, how can I give you a job?’ I said, ‘No more, I’ll do anything you ask.’ He said, ‘Spend a day at the Catholic Worker and write a piece about Dorothy Day.’ I did. Then Jack Kerouac died and Wolf said, ‘Go to Lowell, Mass., and report on the funeral.’ I did. One more assignment—and he gave me the job. And that is how I became a writer.

Fight your anxiety.

Keep on pushing.

When the editor tells you to go cover something or somebody, you go and do it.

And that is how you will become a writer.

Writer’s Desk: Look Around, Write That

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Nina Simone, c. 1982 (photo by Roland Godefroy)

Nina Simone famously said this:

An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times … We will shape and mold this country, or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore … How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?

There are writers whose hackles will bristle at the mere suggestion that they have a “duty” of any kind. That idea has been abused, of course. Some would make writers produce only government-glorifying propaganda. Others would snark that any writing which falls outside strict revenue-producing genre parameters is navel-gazing artsy nonsense.

But listen to Miss Simone. When she talks about an artist’s duty, that could be taken as reflecting an activist’s sensibility. Which is obviously not everybody’s cup of tea—though it would be difficult to argue that our society needs more escapist entertainment.

What she’s saying here is keep your damn eyes open. It matters. Look around. Listen. Feel. Use that when you write, not just what’s in your head.

Because if your writing doesn’t reflect the world around us in some small way, then truly what is the point? As Capote sniped at Kerouac, that’s not writing, that’s typing.

(h/t: Jenna Wortham)

New in Theaters: ‘On the Road’

on-the-road-posterYears in the making, with seemingly every young actor and hot director having once been attached to its adaptation, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is now a film, and a damn good one at that:

Walter Salles has conjured a movie that’s raging and serene, always looking over the horizon while grooving on the beauty of the here and now. This is no small feat. Salles made The Motorcycle Diaries, the only other great road film of recent memory, but still, there are many ways for a Kerouac film to go bust (see The Subterraneans), and this one avoids nearly all of them. Maybe it leaves too much of the book’s kinetic language on the floor; this is a story about words almost as much as it is about movement, the road. But as these burning, dreaming, and frustrated wanderers blast back and forth across postwar America in search of what they don’t know, the smoky poetry of its wide vistas and clangorous urban buzz provide a kick, a true kick…

On the Road is playing now in very limited release, and should expand wider in January; look for it.

My full review is at PopMatters.

You can see the trailer here: